Saturday, September 7, 2013

Recent Investigations: How was this bustle dress worn?

The 'before' shot. Three pieces of netting made
into some kind of dress. Could be fabulous, but
it's hard to tell on the hanger. Scroll all the way
down for the after shot.
A couple of weeks ago I purchased a three-piece dress on an antiquing jaunt in Pennsylvania. At first glance on the hanger it looked like an early 20th-century gown because sheer gauzy white dresses were so big then, and the bodice lacked the fitted darts I would expect of a 19th-century garment. That was deceiving though, because it seemed to have a bustle skirt, which could make it at least 20 years older than I thought it was. But bustle dresses are usually tightly fitted with crazy boning and a tiny waist to go over an hour-glass corset; this had no seams to contour the bodice whatsoever. Fortunately, my shopping companion was a fellow costume enthusiast, so we held out all of the pieces, talked it through, and decided it was probably a bustle dress for a girl who had yet to develop the curves that would necessitate darts in the bodice. Had. To. Have. Obviously.

I don't have much experience with true bustle dresses though, so even after putting this find on a dress form, I am longing for an owner's manual. The three pieces are an underskirt, a bodice with attached bustle overskirt, and a sash. At first I thought I "got" everything except for what to do with the sash. I was so wrong. I had several questions, and in some cases, I still don't know the answer. Here are the questions I've been considering:

1) Exactly how old is this dress? My theory that it was bustle-era for a young girl was trumped when I discovered that it fit my adult dress form just fine- lady curves included. The netting material is stretchy, so the lack of fitted seams and darts wasn't helpful for dating at all. At first I thought the bustle was just a hint of volume as the popularity of the huge backside-shelf petered out, but once I realized how much I had to stuff up under there to make it look right, I knew I was wrong. The bustle is is the variety with a fairly flat draped front and ties to keep the 'fluffy' back over the bum. It had to be from the height (pun intended) of the bustle-era (1870s or 1880s). So I started looking for comparable garments. Alas, that was easier said than done, even with the availability of online collections and Pinterest pages. The vast majority of three-piece dresses from this period consist of an underskirt, overskirt, and separate bodice that buttons up the front. My dress buttons up the back and doesn't have a separate bodice. The best comparable I could find was a plaid ca. 1880 dress from the Museum at FIT. The only other dress I thought had the right look was a sea-side ensemble with bodice, skirt, and belt from Augusta Auctions. It also dates to 1880. So 1880-ish it is!

The best matches for my net dress are a sea side
ensemble from Augusta Auctions (left) an a plaid
bustle dress that buttons up the back from The 
Museum at FIT (above). Both date to c. 1880.
 2A) What would you wear under the sheer bodice? The material is practically transparent, so with visibility of undergarments at roughly 90% they have to be just right. I tried a period-appropriate corset cover, but it buttons up the front and looked wrong to have those buttons under the netting. I didn't even bother to try a chemise pulled on over the head because that would get all bunched up at the waist and the wrinkles would show through. I suspect this had a specialized corset cover that either had a flap to conceal the closures, or it attached under the arm instead of down the front. I don't have anything like that for the 1880s, but the look improved when I tried an early 20th-century camisole with concealed hooks & eyes. It looks better even with lace showing through the netted pattern. I wonder if the woman who wore this would have a similar lace trim on her corset cover as a little peek-a-boo at her fancy underthings?

Here you see the dress over a button up corset cover ca. 1865-1890 (left),
and an early 20th-century corset cover with concealed hooks & eyes (right).

This ca. 1868 corset cover has a 
concealed closure that wouldn't show
under a dress made of netting.
2B) Same problem, different location: What would you wear under the skirt?  I tried using a bustled petticoat but it you can see every wrinkle and pleat through the netting and you can see the bustle ties. It just seems kind of tacky. I am wondering if it had a lobster-tail style bustle of some kind that was designed specifically to look clean under the netting while concealing all ties and attachments. If only I could find one of those at a reasonable price...

You can see every gather in the petticoat through the skirt,
as well as the ties that keep the overskirt in place. In short,
it isn't the cleanest overall look.

3) What's the deal with the sash? My first thought was that it was some kind of belt, but the waist of the over-dress is finished and doesn't really need a belt to cover it. The neck band, by contrast, is made of the same plain linen as the waist of the underskirt (below), so I suspect it is meant to be covered up. Using the sash for that had the most ridiculous results though. Giant bow tie anyone? Dubious. 

No, based on a closer look at seam placement I think my initial thought of a belt was a better guess. On every part of this garment, the location of seams is significant. The underskirt, for example, has an off-center closure, but the waistband has a seam at the center back anyway. There's no structural reason for the seam, so it's probably there to help you orient the skirt properly. Like many bustle-era petticoats, the underskirt has multiple horizontal seams on the back and vertical seams at each side. The seams aren't meant to show though, so they have to be oriented just right.

The sash as a giant bowtie is way gaudy even by Victorian 
The neck band (right) is a bit too boring to go 
uncovered. It  needs a little something. 
Emphasis on "little" though...

Ultimately, this helps with the issue of the sash because that also has a random extra off-center seam that needs to be hidden by the final look. There is also an area of decoration that is off-center and begs to be seen. When I put the seam at the center back of the waist, ran it around the waist and made a loop just long enough to display the middle decoration, whaddya know? Everything looked wonderfully placed and bustle-y. Also, it covers up the bustle ties that show through the overskirt. I pinned the sash in place instead of tying a fancy knot. Yes, that could be a shortcut, but the bustle era was big on bar pins of various sizes to get everything draped just so, and there is no reason to think this sash didn't attach with one or two.

Seam montage! At left you can see how the underskirt has an off-center closure, but there is an extra seam on the waistband to help you orient the skirt so the bustle seams are where they need to be. The sash (center) has an unsightly seam that shouldn't show, and an area of extra decoration that should show. When draped over the bustle with one loop (right), things seem to match up juuuuust right.  

4) If the sash wasn't for the neck, was there something else to go there? I don't really know, but my guess is that there was. Maybe a lacy necktie, a ribbon, a fake flower on a band. Accessories happened; it's just hard to know what form they would take.

John Lavery's A Game of Tennis shows how to pull off
a backhand shot in a full bustle.
6) Where would one wear this little number? Maybe if I could figure that out, it would be easier to envision the proper accessories to go with it. In my search for comparables, I made some progress on this. The outfit was no doubt for summer and has the whimsy and airiness for the beach or even for a game of tennis. It's hard to imagine playing tennis in a bustle, but this dress is nice and stretchy to allow range of motion. It would be way too presumptuous to assume this was a tennis dress though, so by way of accessories, I'm thinking general summer things like a flowy scarf at the neck, a parasol, and a straw hat a la Claude Monet.

In conclusion, whether I know everything there is to know about this dress or not, at the very least I know that its awesomeness is unquestionable. Now if anyone out there wants to offer their thoughts on underthings, accessories, etc., I am more than happy to hear from you!

The 'after' shot. All it needs is the accessories!
I once tried to recreate this painting in a Jr. High art 
class, so of course I thought of it as the epitome of
the look that my new summer dress represents. I am
no Claude Monet, but I'm awfully excited to be the 
owner of the kind of dress that inspired him. Love it
so much!


  1. Lovely write up! A few tidbits I can contribute:
    - Large scale mechanized lacemaking didn't really come into it's own until some time in the 1860s, and wasn't really affordable to make up whole gowns of until the 1880s. (And even then I expect this was rather extravagant!)

    - I would expect that there was some sort of removable collar involved. Removable for both laundry and fashion reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if it hung down the back to cover the plain sewing of the fly button stand. In fact, the fact that the buttons are covered implies to me that there might have been something hanging down the back that they didn't want to catch on it.

    - It's also possible that this was worn over a solid, light-colored, purpose made under gown. Imagine how this would look over a delicate peach or lilac!

  2. Thanks Laura! I thought about a custom under-gown, but it seemed a little self-important for something I could afford. I have seen a number of nice under-dresses though, so it's certainly a possibility that someone would have kept the fine lacy part, but not the underthings that went with it.

    I also considered neck pieces, but most of the ones I have are in dickie form from the 1890s and 1900s, and they all go under the bodice instead of over a neck band. I need to go back through the unidentified accessories we recovered from my great grandmother's things though. I but there's something that might work in there...

  3. As u wish even long skirts with a gud top also luks decent and attractive too of course depending on the size of the body. Too fat girly's luk v bad in long skirts even though they might jus luv to wear it.

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